Between 1500 and 1700, the area now known as Nigeria was host to a variety of kingdoms and empires. Over the course of this time period, power and wealth constantly changed hands as new trade routes and cultural exchanged revolutionised West Africa. Additionally, this era saw the introduction of a factor that would play a significant role in the future of West Africa: the European presence.
We begin in Northern Nigeria, where the Songhai Empire was gradually replacing the older Mali Empire in the north-east, while the Kanem-Borno Empire occupied land that is now part of Borno, Yobe, Gombe, and Adamawa states in north-western Nigeria. Apart from these major political units, various Hausa Kingdoms and city-states maintained their independence, such as Daura, Kano, Katsina, Zaria (Zazzau), Gobir, Rano, and Hadeja/Hadejia (Biram). While many of these cities still exist today, they never formed a unified Hausa empire as constant fighting hindered any hopes of unity, even as the much larger empires of Songhai, Mali, and Kanem-Borno faded and declined.
Despite this lack of unity, the Hausa kingdoms continued to thrive due to their position in the Sahel. This boundary was a key trading area in the early part of this period, as Atlantic Trade was still in its infancy, so Sahelian caravans transported goods across the Sahara instead. These trading caravans are what brought wealth to and from the Hausa kingdoms, and allowed them to survive despite the collapse of larger empires around them.
Further South, in Yorubaland, the 16th century was a time of turmoil. In 1535, the Oyo Empire was sacked and destroyed by the Nupe (an ethnic group who reside primarily in Niger state today) but the Empire recovered later in the century and conquered much of south-western Nigeria, at one point stretching as far as modern Togo in the west, and as far as modern Kogi state in the east. However, Oyo was not alone in this part of Nigeria, as the Kingdom of Benin (now Benin City, Edo State) was also a major regional power until its decline in the 17th century due to disputes over royal succession.
Throughout this period, Portuguese explorers had become common in this part of Africa, encountering both the empires of Oyo and Benin. Benin was formerly known as ‘Ubinu’ or ‘Ibinu’, but this name was corrupted by the Portuguese to Benin, which has now been adopted as the city’s name, a fate also shared by the city of Eko (alternatively, Oko), now commonly known as Lagos. Multiple city-states would also rise and fall in Yorubaland during this period, but none would come to rival the power of Oyo or Benin.
In the South-East, the ancient Nri Kingdom had already begun to decline. Nri has been suggested to be as ancient as the 9th century A.D, but its exact origins are uncertain. As Nri was formally ended in 1911 under British occupation, the kingdom lasted for roughly 1000 years in total! The theocratic state extended over about a quarter of modern Igboland at its height, but late 16th century conflicts contributed to its gradual decline. Awka, another ancient settlement (circa 800 A.D), rose to prominance in this period as Nri withdrew. Additionally, following the Aro-Ibibio wars of the 17th and 18th centuries, the kingdom of Arochukwu (in modern day Abia state) rose to prominence. Thus, South-Eastern Nigeria showed a similar pattern to the rest of Nigeria during this period, with ancient kingdoms and empires declining as new powers rose in the vacuum they left.
Portugal was the main European power in Africa between 1500 and 1700, with Spain, Holland, France, Germany, and England also wielding minor power. However, none of them could rival the Portuguese. While Nigeria was never a Portuguese colony or territory, Portuguese influence can be seen today in the name ‘Lagos’ for the city of Eko. Benin was the primary point of contact for the Portuguese in Nigeria during this period, and there was significant trade in material goods and slaves, a practice that would expand over the coming centuries.
Next, we will take a look at the 1700s, 1800s, and 1900s, a period of even more rapid change that laid the foundations for the Nigeria we know today.